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WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs, which runs one of the nation’s largest health systems, announced Monday it would mandate coronavirus vaccines for its front line workers, becoming the first federal agency to do so and signaling what some experts said could be a national pivot to such requirements.
Faced with the explosive growth of a new virus variant, the state of California and the city of New York also rolled out similar mandates. And an array of hospitals from coast-to-coast, including the prestigious Mayo Clinic, declared they would require staff to get vaccinated, following a joint plea from the nation’s major medical groups.
Health care leaders say the moves represent an escalation of the nation’s fight against coronavirus — the first concerted effort to mandate that tens of millions of Americans get vaccinated, more than seven months after regulators authorized the shots and as new cases rip through the nation.
The VA’s mandate applies to more than 100,000 front line workers including physicians, dentists, podiatrists and registered nurses. The VA said in its announcement that its employees would receive four hours of paid leave after demonstrating they have been vaccinated.
At the VA Health Care System in Iowa City, which provides health care to the over 180,000 veterans living in the 50 counties it serves in Eastern Iowa, Western Illinois and Northern Missouri, about 95 percent of the staff already is fully vaccinated, spokeswoman Janelle Beswick said.
A VA online chart shows that 1,828 employees of the system, which also operates 10 clinics in cities including Coralville and Cedar Rapids, are fully vaccinated.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement that the safety of veterans had driven the decision as new infections, fueled by the infectious Delta variant, surge around the country.
"Since the pandemic began, we have tragically lost tens of thousands of veterans to this deadly disease," said VA spokesperson Randal Noller. "This action is aimed at ensuring that we are doing everything we can to protect our veterans and the system that serves them.“
The VA directive, which gives employees eight weeks to comply, is in line with vaccination requirements that other health care systems and hospitals have implemented, Noller added, citing a joint statement released Monday from nearly 60 medical groups, calling for all health workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The statement — issued by many groups urging a mandate for the first time — represents an increasingly tough stance by the medical and public health establishment amid the sluggish pace of national vaccinations.
Earlier this month, MercyOne announces that staff at its facilities across Iowa will be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine by this fall. That includes hospitals and associated medical clinics at MercyOne Dubuque, MercyOne Dyersville, MercyOne Clinton, MercyOne North Iowa and MercyOne Western. However, the state’s largest hospital — the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics — has said it will not require that its staff be vaccinated.
Confirmed coronavirus infections nationally have nearly quadrupled in July, from about 13,000 cases per day at the start of the month to more than 50,000 now, according to the Post's tracking.
"We call for all health care and long-term care employers to require their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19," the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association and 55 other groups wrote in a joint statement. "The health and safety of U.S. workers, families, communities, and the nation depends on it."
But many workers in the health field remain unvaccinated, despite having priority access to coronavirus vaccines, which first became available in December. More than 38 percent of nursing home staff were not fully vaccinated as of July 11, despite caring for patients at elevated risk, according to data collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and analyzed by LeadingAge, which represents nonprofit nursing homes and other providers. An analysis by WebMD and Medscape Medical News estimated that 25 percent of hospital workers who had contact with patients had not been vaccinated as of May.
Health leaders said that the slowed pace of vaccinations, coupled with the surging threat of the Delta variant, compelled them to act.
"We feel that it's important to sign our name onto this," said Rachel Villanueva, an OB/GYN and the president of the National Medical Association, which represents more than 50,000 Black physicians and is calling for a vaccination mandate for the first time.
Villanueva added that new coronavirus cases could disproportionately affect front-line workers — many of whom are African American — and communities of color that continue to lag behind whites on vaccination rates. "We want to continue to dispel myths, educate, increase confidence and increase vaccination rates in our communities," she said.
About 60 percent of all U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, with the rate of new immunizations slowing since mid-April, according to the Post's tracking. Iowa’s rate is lower: Nearly 47 percent of all Iowans had been vaccinated as of last Wednesday, the last time state public health officials provided an update.
Health care facilities generally have hesitated to mandate coronavirus vaccines for employees, noting that the vaccines have not yet received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration and citing the threat of lawsuits. Fewer than 9 percent of hospitals have required their workers to get vaccinated, according to tracking by the American Hospital Association, which announced separately last week that it supported such mandates.
Hundreds of colleges and universities also have imposed vaccination mandates, which are expected to move forward after a federal judge last week upheld Indiana University's mandate. At lease one institution in Iowa — the private liberal arts Grinnell College — has announces it will requires students to be vaccinated for the fall semester. The state’s public universities in Iowa City, Ames and Cedar Falls have said they won’t require students to be vaccinated.
Americans' opinions on requiring coronavirus vaccines vary by industry. A Politico-Harvard poll released this month found that 66 percent of adults supported health care organizations requiring employees to get the shots, but Americans were about evenly divided over whether other workers or schoolchildren should be required to do so.
On Saturday, more than 100 people gathered outside the Iowa Capitol to rally against mandates requiring people to get vaccinated. One of the speakers, Republican state Rep. Jeff Shipley of Birmingham, near Fairfield, called vaccine mandates “a crime against humanity.”
Erin Jordan of The Gazette contributed.